Warning: this post is long, but official race pictures are included! I’m going to attempt to get through my entire marathon experience at once. I have divided the post into four sections: Training, The Marathon, Post-race, and Tips. I tried to touch on the physical, emotional, and psychological experience as well as address some of the questions I have been asked. Here we go.
Training for a marathon is a huge time commitment. The time involved was my biggest hesitation before registering for the marathon, but ultimately it was an achievement I wanted so badly that I decided it would be worth the effort. I think it’s important to make sure you really want to run a marathon (and for the right reasons) in order to put forth the required effort.
I looked at a variety of training plans before choosing Hal Higdon’s 18 week Novice Two plan. I likely could have completed an intermediate plan, but I wanted to go really basic for my first marathon. I adjusted the days on the plan (long runs on Saturdays instead of Sundays) and added my own speed work to the shorter weekday runs. I liked that this plan had me running four days a week and left space for cross training and rest. Continuing Bikram Yoga was important to me and I think it definitely helped me stay loose and avoid injury. I also made sure to get in a little bit of strength training, although looking back I would have liked to do more. I sometimes avoided leg workouts for fear that I would be too sore to exercise the next day, but I probably could have benefitted from even stronger legs. Towards the middle of training my calves started to get sore after runs, and at the point I put more emphasis on leg (and particularly calf) strengthening.
I stuck to my training plan almost meticulously, but I am the type of person that enjoys a schedule. Working full-time actually made it easy because I just got up each day and went to the gym. I think that had I been in school or had a more flexible schedule I would have found it more difficult to decide when and if to do my runs.
The amount of running towards the end of the training plan initially seemed daunting. I had only had the energy to run 4 miles before work previously, but my body adapted as the plan slowly built up. The longest I had to run before work was 8 miles and I used a GU for some extra energy during those, but other than that I didn’t have a problem. Getting adequate sleep was vital to being able to run well in the morning.
My weekday runs were all done on a treadmill since I started training in December when it was too dark for me to comfortably run in the morning. There were times when I was bored with watching The Today Show again, but I think the benefits of easily performing speed work and tempo runs made up for it. I was also doing my long runs on the treadmill when it was simply too cold to run outside. I got up to 17 miles, which seems ridiculously long, before being able to head outside again. Those runs didn’t seem bad to me at the time because I planned them around good TV shows (Food Network) or sports games (NCAA Basketball), but after making the transition to the outdoors again I could tell a big difference in mental ease. Despite not having the television entertainment, running outside provides a lot of stimulation to keep your mind occupied. I never found myself bored outside because there were so many things to look at and my mind naturally wandered. Of course a good playlist helps.
Physically my body thrived on training. I was only sore after my long runs, but it was nothing extreme and I was always able to run again after a day of rest. Making sure to stretch, foam roll, and ice likely helped with this. Only once did I suffer a minor calf injury but I recovered quickly by taking a few days off. I never felt tired from all of the exercise, but instead felt like I had more energy. I gradually added calories to each meal to make sure I was getting enough fuel and while I never let myself feel hungry, I did enjoy feeling like I could continue to eat without worry.
Along with the time commitment of marathon training comes sacrifice. I chose to do my long runs on Saturdays so that I would be able to rest on Sundays. It also made more sense because I was often tired after a long work week and wanted to get to bed early on Fridays anyway. This meant that I often missed Friday’s out with my friends which definitely hindered my social life. I tried to make up for it by seeing them on Saturday nights, but it’s not always possible. Truthfully, I wanted to run this marathon so badly that missing nights out didn’t bother me too much. It was important to me to train properly and feel good during my runs, so each sacrifice was worth it. There were a few times when I switched up training schedule due to travel or a big event (Mardi Gras), but other than that I just knew what I had signed up for and accepted it. I often told myself “it’s only 4 months of my whole life.”
The taper was difficult in so many ways. I trusted it’s importance and never felt like taking time off would hurt me physically, I just had the itch to exercise because I was so used to it! I somehow ended up more tired and more hungry even though I was cutting back on exercise, but I listened to my body and gave it what it wanted. I was way too far in to mess anything up at that point.
I don’t know if anyone ever feels “ready” to run a marathon. It’s a huge task physically and mentally so it would take a very confident runner to go into it thinking “oh I got this, no problem”. But I did trust my training plan to prepare me and felt like I was physically capable to get through the run. There were a few moments of doubt when I thought “no way are my legs strong enough to do this”, but after thinking back to the long runs I had completed I felt better. I wasn’t nervous about finishing the race – I knew I would at least be able to cross the finish line before the sweeper took me away – but I was nervous about what it would be like.
The forecasted race conditions kept changing so the week before I was becoming mentally prepared to alter my goals. My only true goal was to complete my first marathon, but inside I wanted to run it in around 4 hours. Between 4 and 4:15 was a timeframe I was hoping for based on the pace I usually keep. The prediction for thunderstorms and strong winds actually helped my mindset by bringing me down a level. I was getting too caught up in having the most perfect and fast race, but the week before I became more okay with just running my best race on that day.
Having more flexible goals was good because the conditions on race day ended up being about 25 degrees warmer than anything I’d run in during training. I got tired much quicker than I ever had before due to heat and hills and I started walking sooner than I thought I’d have to. Luckily the other runners around me were experiencing the same thing so I didn’t feel as bad about it.
The marathon was more hard physically than mentally to me. I actually don’t even recall listening to my ipod because there was so much going on around me between spectators, water stations, and the beautiful tour of St. Louis that the course provided. I was really focused on getting my body through that race in one piece and so made sure to drink water for hydration and Gatorade for energy and electrolytes. It wasn’t about “running the fastest with the least fuel not stopping at all” anymore – it was just about allowing my body to finish.
Since I got split up from my girlfriends I ended up running about 10 miles of the race alone. I took walking breaks but always started to run again. This was for multiple reasons. First, there were people watching and they weren’t there to watch me walk a marathon. Second, I knew the fastest way to the finish line was to run. From my watch I could tell that I still had the potential to finish in around four hours as long as I kept up my pace. And lastly, I knew the marathon was going to hurt. I never thought it would be easy. So I kept telling myself “pain is temporary, pride is forever” and started to run again.
Hitting the 20 mile marker was a strange feeling. On one hand I was nervous about running farther than I ever had before, but on the other hand I knew I only had six miles left and I was going to finish! Catching LB at the final miles and having her next to me during the final push was more helpful that I could ever know. I am so thankful that I could cross the finish line with her. We started training and racing together so it was meaningful on a deeper level that just being best friends.
The post-marathon experience was a mix of emotions. Immediately after finishing I thought “I never want to do this again”. In fact I think I said it out loud to the lady handing out waters. After that I just didn’t think about future races and was full of pride and happiness. Once the excitement of the day wore off the post-marathon depression set in. I’d read about this online and it is a real thing. You have worked for so long to accomplish a goal and then all of a sudden it’s over. It’s hard to describe the feeling of emptiness and lack of purpose.
The thought of training for four months for another marathon doesn’t sound appealing right now, but running another marathon definitely does. It’s true that they say once you forget about the pain and struggle, the addiction sets in. I keep thinking “I wonder what I could do if it isn’t hot. I wonder what I could do on a flatter course”. So yes, I’d definitely run another marathon.
And even though the long training period doesn’t sound good, part of the post-marathon depression for me includes missing those training runs. Each time I completed a long run on the weekend I had a huge sense of accomplishment. I love pushing my body and I love having something to work towards. I guess that means I love running. A more accurate description of what I’m feeling is confusion. I really want to focus on other types of cardio and strength training, but I also can’t imagine my life without running. Without being signed up for a race I just don’t know where my fitness routine will go.
Physically, I recovered from the marathon much quicker than I had expected to. I took an ice bath and stretched a little bit right afterward which I believe helped my legs. The day following the marathon I had some pain and had a little difficulty walking normally, but now three days later I am almost 100% back to normal. The biggest thing I noticed was how tired I was. I allowed myself plenty of sleep in the days after the race but still found myself exhausted during the day. I was also extra hungry for the days following the race, but instead of letting myself get ravenous I took a pre-emptive approach and made each meal and snack bigger than usual.
I’m extremely curious and nervous to see how my body changes now that I’m not training anymore. I don’t know if my hunger levels will go back to normal and quite frankly I’m not happy about cutting back my portion sizes. Part of my wants to keep up the intensity of my exercise, whether through running or another form, because I loved it. I felt great when I was working hard each day! But the other part of me thinks maybe I should see what it’s like to be a normal person again that exercises moderately. I have some changes coming up with my career and with started my Institute of Integrative Nutrition classes so I think my entire schedule will just adjust accordingly.
- Run a marathon for the right reasons. This can be a variety of things from a personal reason to running for charity. Either way, your head and your heart have to be in it from the start. Just wanting to lose weight won’t get you there.
- Choose a training plan to fit your needs. There are tons out there so think about your schedule and what is important to maintain about your current lifestyle. And don’t be afraid to change the days around or play with your own speed work. As long as you are building up your mileage and getting in your long runs things should be fine.
- Cross Train! Make sure to do core strengthening exercises as well as at least a little bit of leg work. The stronger your legs, the better chance you have of avoiding injury. Yoga or some form of stretching and flexibility work will help with this also.
- Don’t be afraid of fuel. It can seem contradictory to take in calories while you’re expending them, but your runs will be SO much easier if you’re fueling properly. This means eating well in general, but most importantly the night before long runs and the morning of. Find a pre-run meal that doesn’t leave you feeling too full or with an upset stomach, and find your favorite way to take in calories during your long runs. I love GUs but I know some people prefer GU chomps or just jelly beans. Experiment during training!
- Stay hydrated. Drink a lot always so that you aren’t super dehydrated when you’re running. I had a water bottle next to me on my treadmill runs and brought my camelbak during long runs outside. I actually got more thirsty running inside than I did outside for some reason. And I was FAR more thirsty than usual on race day due to the heat. I didn’t carry my own water because there were water stations so often (check your course map to make sure!) but I needed every single water stop they had.
- Put your body first. It’s easy to let your ego take over and start to ignore pain or uncomfort in order to meet a time goal. You won’t get anywhere if you’re too weak or if you hurt yourself, so take a rest day if you need it. Your training won’t get sidelined from a few days off of running.
- Trust your training plan. Simple. They work.
Phew that was long! If there’s anything else you guys want to know feel free to ask away. If you read that whole thing, you rock.